When the great amateur golfer Bobby Jones called a penalty on himself for a rules violation no one else had observed, others praised him for his honesty. Jones is said to have replied that he might as well have been praised for not robbing a bank.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently condemned golf as a bourgeois sport that should not be added to the Olympics. And in a recent blog, New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen criticizes golf on ethical grounds, maintaining, along with President Chávez, that golf is an elitist sport with little or no moral worth.
According to Mr. Cohen, it is a game of the affluent and privileged, professional players are too conservative, and the game lacks diversity or social concern. He suggests that from a moral point of view we probably would be better off without it.
But at a time when many observers of contemporary sports are criticizing the effects of elite athletic competition on the ethics of competitors, golf is a counterexample to their concerns. In fact, other sports could learn a thing or two from the etiquette of golf.
Critics charge that too many sports programs lead to a diminished sense of responsibility among athletes. Authority is delegated to rules officials and coaches. Players often are reluctant to correct even an obviously incorrect call in their favor or question decisions of their coaches, even those that have ethical ramifications. After all, it's the referee's job to make the call and the coach's job to give orders.
Even worse, opponents are too often regarded as obstacles to be beaten down or reduced to mere barriers – something that stands between a team and a win – and not respected as fellow competitors who test our skills by providing a challenge.
And then there is golf.
Golfers follow a strict honor code that places the burden of following the rules on the player. Players are expected to call penalties on themselves. Golfers also have duties that require them to show courtesy to their opponents and act in ways that best allow their opponents to maximize their own opportunities to play well.
Golfers stand still when opponents are playing shots and must learn to show respect and courtesy to competitors. There is no trash talking in golf (with perhaps the exception of teasing among friends in recreational play).
While there have been cases of gamesmanship even at elite levels of competition, they stand out because of their rarity and relative mildness when compared with those that occur in other sports.
While other sports also prohibit competitors, even at the highest levels of competition, from cheating and attempt to require them to show courtesy and respect to opponents, golf achieves it.
Thus, it is hardly a coincidence that golf organizations donate more to charity than any other sports associations.
The PGA Tour alone donated more than $124 million to charity in 2008. The PGA Tour, the satellite Nationwide Tour, and the senior Champions Tour have donated an all-time total of more than $1 billion in charitable donations. Add the additional millions donated by the LPGA and donations from local and regional amateur tournaments in which golfers all over the country participate, and the impact of golf on charity is impressive.
Is golf an elitist sport?
To be sure, golf in the US has a historical association with exclusive country clubs. And although some golf organizations did not act quickly enough to remedy discriminatory practices in the past, and still may not have done enough to criticize remaining ones, there has been much progress in eliminating discriminatory barriers throughout the sport.
Today, most golfers play on public facilities. And many private courses, especially those away from large urban areas, are affordable to relatively large segments of the population.
Of course, golf still needs to become more diverse. But consider this: Golf originated in Scotland and was originally played by shepherds and artisans – not the elite. Today, organizations such as the First Tee introduce golf to thousands of young people from diverse backgrounds, and often combine golf instruction with innovative educational programs. More good news on that front: Asian golfers from countries such as South Korea and Japan have enjoyed tremendous worldwide success, including many recent major winners on the LPGA from Asia and, of course, Y.E. Yang, who recently defeated Tiger Woods in the PGA Championship to become the first Asian winner of one of the men's major professional championships.
As a young golfer growing up on Long Island and learning to play in the late 1950s and early '60s, I often played with men and women, some of whom were three times my age. While my community was not racially diverse, my playing partners ranged from fellow students to physicians to owners of pizza stores to professional caddies.
Golf provided an education on how to get along with many different kinds of people with different political and social views, which we had plenty of time to discuss between shots. These conversations helped me learn to appreciate that I could disagree with my competitors politically while still respecting them as people and conducting our disagreement in a civil, reasoned manner. Because angry, distracted golfers tend to hit poorly, golf almost forced civility upon us.
If respect for our opponents, for the rules and spirit of the game, and for development of moral virtues such as civility and self-control are important values, then golf is an ethical model we should cherish. Golf should really be considered an ethical model for other sports.
We should try to emulate it, not only in athletics but perhaps also in education, where honor codes need to be respected, and especially in politics, where the practice of respect for our opponent seems to be in danger of extinction.